The best novels written before 1800

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been researching and teaching the history of the novel since I was a graduate student in Cambridge in the late 1980s, and along the way, I’ve published trade editions of several classics beyond those recommended here, including Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Richardson’s Pamela, Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Beckford’s Vathek. It’s a great opportunity to take a break from specialist academia and reach a broader community of readers, as I’ve also tried to do in a recent introductory book about Jane Austen. I now teach at the University of Toronto, where I’m blessed with amazing students on two of my favourite undergraduate courses, “The Rise of the Novel” and “Austen and Her Contemporaries.”


I wrote...

Jane Austen: A Very Short Introduction

By Tom Keymer,

Book cover of Jane Austen: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Jane Austen wrote six of the best-loved novels in the English language, as well as a smaller body of works unpublished in her day, including three volumes of witty, non-realist teenage writings and the innovative, unfinished Sanditon. She pioneered new techniques for representing voices, minds, and hearts in narrative prose, and was a penetrating satirist of social tensions and trends in an era dominated by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the socio-economic disruptions entailed by them.

Tom Keymer combines critical introductions to each of Austen's major novels with exploration of key themes in her works, from national identity to narrative technique. The Austen who emerges is a writer shaped by the literary experiments and political debates of the Revolution decade.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Oroonoko

Tom Keymer Why did I love this book?

“All women together ought to let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn... in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” The first professional woman writer in England, best known for her scandalous stage comedies during the reign of Charles II, Behn ended her career with a hard-hitting novel about slavery and rebellion in colonial Suriname. It may not be true, as she says when dedicating Oroonoko (1688) to a Scottish nobleman, that “I writ it in a few hours.” But there’s real urgency to Behn’s narrative as she deplores the fate of her enslaved hero, an African prince she likens to “a lion taken in a toil,” while also sounding the alarm about regime change back home in England. 

By Aphra Behn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Oroonoko as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'We are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards, and the support of rogues . . .'

Spy, traveller and pioneering female writer Aphra Benn's story of an African prince sold into slavery is considered one of the earliest English novels


Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

Tom Keymer Why did I love this book?

The book that flew from the shelves when COVID struck in 2020. Fresh from his masterpiece Robinson Crusoe (1719) and his thrilling novel of urban survival, Moll Flanders (1722), Daniel Defoe turned next to the bubonic plague that devastated London in 1665. The protagonist and narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is personally an enigma: we don’t even know his name, just his initials, H.F. But he reports the trauma all around him in relentless, unflinching detail: the terrifying rumours and padlocked houses; the crazed prophets and mass graves; “Persons falling dead in the Streets, terrible Shrieks and Skreekings of Women, who in their Agonies would throw open their Chamber Windows, and cry out in a dismal Surprising Manner.”

By Daniel Defoe,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Journal of the Plague Year as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The haunting cry of "Bring out your dead!" by a bell-ringing collector of 17th-century plague victims has filled readers across the centuries with cold terror. The chilling cry survives in historical consciousness largely as a result of this classic 1722 account of the epidemic of bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — that ravaged England in 1664–1665.
Actually written nearly 60 years later by Daniel Defoe, the Journal is narrated by a Londoner named "H. F.," who allegedly lived through the devastating effects of the pestilence and produced this eye witness account. Drawing on his considerable talents as…


Book cover of Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady

Tom Keymer Why did I love this book?

The towering achievement of eighteenth-century fiction, but long, very long—and not because of the plot so much as the form. “There is no Story,” wrote Hester Thrale, an early admirer of Clarissa (1747-8): “A man gets a Girl from her Parents—violates her Free Will, & She dies of a broken heart.” Around this brutal, elemental tale of toxic courtship and finally rape, however, the novel uses competing, divergent points of view to problematize access to the action, its causes and effects, its rights and wrongs, its large implications for sexual politics and social class. With its multiple narrators, Clarissa probes complex psychologies in startling new ways and throws the burden of interpretation and judgment on its readers. It’s not just a compelling story but a vast, endlessly troubling altercation about that story, with each narrator, one way or another, “throwing dust in the eyes of his judges.”

By Samuel Richardson, Angus Ross (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pressured by her unscrupulous family to marry a wealthy man she detests, the young Clarissa Harlowe is tricked into fleeing with the witty and debonair Robert Lovelace and places herself under his protection. Lovelace, however, proves himself to be an untrustworthy rake whose vague promises of marriage are accompanied by unwelcome and increasingly brutal sexual advances. And yet, Clarissa finds his charm alluring, her scrupulous sense of virtue tinged with unconfessed desire. Told through a complex series of interweaving letters, Clarissa is a richly ambiguous study of a fatally attracted couple and a work of astonishing power and immediacy. A…


Book cover of The Expedition of Humphry Clinker

Tom Keymer Why did I love this book?

Tobias Smollett, Scotland’s greatest novelist before Scott and Stevenson, was dying in a villa on the Ligurian coast when his masterpiece Humphry Clinker came out in London in 1771. Yet every page is written with astounding verve, immersing readers in the vibrant chaos of eighteenth-century Britain, the sights and sounds of its teeming cities and health resorts—even, in several virtuoso passages of gross-out description, its nauseating smells and tastes. Like Richardson before him, Smollett gives his narrative over to multiple voices, this time to riotously comic effect. Five Anglo-Welsh tourists (splenetic Bramble, scathing Tabitha, witty Jery, romantic Lydia, their hilariously unpredictable servant Win) travel the length and breadth of a nation in the throes of urbanization and commercial modernity, by turns disgusted and enchanted, constantly failing to agree on what they see. Illicit romances play out in the background, but Smollett’s main interest is in the turbulent dynamism of four-nations Britain, its stresses and strains, its conflicts and accommodations, its vast energies and potentialities.     

By Tobias Smollett, Paul-Gabriel Boucé (editor), Lewis M. Knapp (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Expedition of Humphry Clinker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

William Thackeray called it "the most laughable story that has ever been written since the goodly art of novel-writing began." As a group of travellers visit places in England and Scotland, they provide through satire and wit a vivid and detailed picture of the contemporary social and political scene.
ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to…


Book cover of Pride and Prejudice

Tom Keymer Why did I love this book?

Jane Austen’s most enduringly popular novel didn’t appear in print until 1813, but the earliest version of it, now lost, was drafted under the title First Impressions in 1796-7, when she was scarcely out of her teens. In one of the most spectacular bloopers of publishing history, the leading bookseller Thomas Cadell rejected the manuscript sight and unseen, and it gathered dust until the modest success of Sense and Sensibility (1811) prompted Austen to try again with a revised (and probably shorter, pacier) version. “The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade,” Austen told her sister Cassandra, no doubt (and as ever) with tongue in cheek. Alongside its famously euphoric romance plot concerning Elizabeth and Darcy, Pride and Prejudice also carries a satirical charge, and contains two of the most memorably loathsome characters in all fiction: cruel, snobbish Lady Catherine de Bourg and her smarmy, acquisitive sidekick Mr. Collins.

By Jane Austen,

Why should I read it?

30 authors picked Pride and Prejudice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of BBC's 100 Novels That Shaped Our World.

Jane Austen's best-loved novel is an unforgettable story about the inaccuracy of first impressions, the power of reason, and above all the strange dynamics of human relationships and emotions.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library; a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket sized classics with gold foiled edges and ribbon markers. These beautiful books make perfect gifts or a treat for any book lover. This edition is illustrated by Hugh Thomson and features an afterword by author and critic, Henry Hitchings.

A tour de force of wit and sparkling dialogue, Pride and…


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The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

By Katherine Grant,

Book cover of The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

Katherine Grant Author Of The Viscount Without Virtue

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Novelist History nerd Amateur dancer Reader New Yorker

Katherine's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Enjoy this Persuasion-inspired historical romance!

Six years ago, Amy decided *not* to elope with Captain Nate Preston. Now, he is back in the neighborhood, and he is shocked to discover that Amy is unmarried. Even more surprising, she is clearly battling some unnamed illness. Thrown together by circumstances outside their control, Nate and Amy try to be friends. Soon, it becomes clear that their feelings for each other never died. Has anything changed, or are they destined for heartbreak once more?

The Sailor Without a Sweetheart

By Katherine Grant,

What is this book about?

Is love worth giving a second chance?

Six years ago, Amy Lamplugh decided not to elope with Nate Preston. Ever since, she has been working hard to convince herself she was right to choose her family over Nate.

Now, Nate is back. After an illustrious career as a naval captain, he faces a court martial for disobeying orders while fighting the slave trade. He accepts an invitation to await the trial at a country estate outside of Portsmouth - and discovers he is suddenly neighbors with Amy.

Nate is shocked to find that Amy didn’t end up marrying someone rich…


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Interested in plagues, social class, and Westminster Abbey?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about plagues, social class, and Westminster Abbey.

Plagues Explore 49 books about plagues
Social Class Explore 90 books about social class
Westminster Abbey Explore 9 books about Westminster Abbey